Thursday, June 24, 2004

Welcome to the working world

This is the seventh in an occasional series documenting moments that connect us. The series focuses on firsts that are life's milestones.

By John Johnston / Enquirer staff writer

Donny Walker 15, of Pleasant Ridge loads a customer's car with groceries in the parking lot outside the Kroger grocery store in Hyde Park
Friday June 18, 2004.

(The Enquirer/Brandi Stafford)
In black trousers and black-and-cream knit shirt, he blends in with the other young, uniformed grocery store employees.

Maybe you don't notice him until he looks you in the eye and says from the end of the checkout aisle: "Hello, ma'am. Is plastic OK?"

He works quickly and methodically, separating cosmetics from food, keeping frozen items together, bagging it all up.

"Ma'am, your change," he says, pointing to a coin dispenser. Then: "Thank you, ma'am. Have a nice day."

Maybe you glance at his name badge. Donny, it says.

In May, Donny Walker began bagging groceries, rounding up shopping carts and cleaning scuff marks off the floor of the Hyde Park Kroger. He was hired after completing the Youth Works program, which teaches job-training skills to young people 14 to 17 who are entering the work force for the first time. It's a partnership between Kroger and the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati.

"I wanted a job," Donny says, "so I could have something positive to do, (and) make money."

This time of year, many teens are beginning their first paying jobs. And others are still looking.

After the April 2001 riots in Cincinnati, city and business leaders created a $2.2 million plan for 3,000 summer jobs for teens. But the goal was never reached; this year, it's expected to employ 1,100.

More funding sought

This month the scarcity of area summer jobs prompted State Rep. Tyrone Yates to ask Gov. Bob Taft for $4 million for youth employment and adult job-training programs. Yates wants the money to go to a program administered by the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative and Citizens Committee on Youth. A CYC official said more than 1,500 youth are on a waiting list for jobs.

But a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services said the state already has committed all it can to jobs programs.

Donny need not worry about all that. His father, Donald Shabazz, signed him up for Youth Works in the spring.

"I told him, from here on out, he'll probably be working," says Shabazz, lead telecommunication coordinator for Luxottica Retail.

Donny, a slender, shy 15-year-old from Pleasant Ridge, attends Shroder High School. He'll be a sophomore next fall. He earns mostly Bs, some Cs, and especially likes math. He plays basketball, enjoys video games and is reading Night, Elie Wiesel's tale of the horrors of the Holocaust.

On this recent Tuesday, he's wearing a red Shrek watch,a prize from a cereal box.

At noon, two hours before his five-hour Kroger shift begins, Donny leaves the apartment he shares with his twin brother, Dominique, and their father. He walks five minutes to a bus stop on Montgomery Road and catches the No. 4 to Evanston. Then he walks a few minutes to the corner of Dana and Trimble avenues and waits for the No. 64 to Hyde Park. If he's lucky, the wait's only half an hour.

One day, the 64 broke down just after he boarded. Donny was four minutes late for work. Another day, he says, he was three minutes late because he set his watch wrong.

Those mishaps notwithstanding, he's doing just fine.

"He is an exceptional young man," says Sonya Taylor, human resources manager for the Hyde Park Kroger.

Myrtle Beach is a goal

Donny makes $5.90 an hour, and says he'll soon be eligible for a nickel raise. With his first paycheck, he bought a pair of Nike Air Force 1 shoes, which he wears to work.

He plans to save up for a trip his family will take to Myrtle Beach, S.C., this summer. Also, for school clothes.

"Do you want these in a bag?" he asks a woman purchasing cat litter.

"Do you want me to double-bag it?" he asks a woman who requests a paper sack.

"Can I help you out?" he asks Ife Judkins of East Walnut Hills. Her shopping cart is brimming with groceries.

"You are so sweet, yes," she says.

As he places Judkins' groceries into a conversion van, one of her children, 6-year-old Boubacar Sow, notices the red watch on the bagger's wrist.

When the last bag's in the van, Judkins says, "May I tip you?"

Donny shakes his head. "We're not allowed." It's the second tip he has declined within the hour.

Judkins, pleased with his service, asks for his name.

But nobody's more pleased than little Boubacar. He's the happy new owner of a red Shrek wristwatch.

We welcome your suggestions. Contact John Johnston at 768-8516; E-mail

Youth Works trains for success

Since 1998, Youth Works has offered job training to teens age 14 to 17 who are entering the workforce for the first time. The program is a partnership between Kroger and the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati.

Teens meet on three Saturdays, three hours each day.

Among the topics covered: filling out job applications; preparing for interviews; the importance of savings and education; expectations in the workplace; and dressing appropriately. Those who successfully complete the program are invited to a Kroger job fair.

Teens who are hired need not give up their jobs at summer's end. Many continue working through the school year.

"We get employees who understand the importance of things like integrity, fairness, quality and accountability," says Reuben Shaffer, Kroger vice president of operations for the Cincinnati-Dayton marketing area.

Sessions are held twice a year, in spring and fall. Sixty-one teens registered for the most recent spring session; 38 completed the program and 34 were hired, says Barb Griffis, management recruiter for Kroger.

In one sense, the program has been a victim of its own success. There are fewer job openings than when the program began, because Kroger has experienced less employee turnover.

Marsha Watts Visher, executive vice president of the Urban League, says she'd like to see more companies participate.

Registration for the fall session of Youth Works will begin in September. Call Martita Nelson at 487-6529.

Some humble beginnings

First jobs can play a significant role in future success. Consider these first jobs:

John Allen, chief operating officer, Cincinnati Reds: "I was baling hay on a (friend's) farm in western Kansas, and the thing I learned was that I didn't want to be a farmer."

Valerie Lemmie, Cincinnati city manager: "My first job was coordinating a transportation program for the city of St. Louis. It was a demonstration to test if you got center-city folks to jobs in the suburbs, would it enhance their overall economic potential and quality of life. I'd just graduated from high school and I was on my way to college."

Victoria Morgan, artistic director, Cincinnati Ballet: "The very first paying job I had was with a small ballet company, Utah Ballet. I was still in high school, 16 or 17, when they started paying me to come to rehearsals. You totally start at the bottom of the rung, and you do all of the corps work at the back of the room. You learn all those things about what it is to be in a studio and work as a team, and stay in line. You sort of learn to breathe together as a group."

James Votruba, president, Northern Kentucky University: "My first job was as a Little League baseball umpire. I learned how to call balls and strikes and how to organize little kids, and I learned how to deal with parents who sometimes were more involved in the games than they should have been. I think I began to develop my diplomatic skills in that job."

Nancy Zimpher, president, University of Cincinnati: At 16, she was a lifeguard in Gallipolis, Ohio. "One of the duties was teaching swimming lessons. It's amazing how constructive you could be in helping children overcome the fear of water. It was also my first bonafide teaching experience. I did successfully teach little kids to float."

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